Gifts From The Ancestors

November 18, 2009

Okvik human head carved from Walrus ivory, Princeton University Art Museum; The Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White

For the first time since the late 1980s, a museum exhibition of ivory artifacts and other remnants from the ancient cultures of the Bering Strait is on display at the Princeton Art Museum, in Princeton, New Jersey. “Gifts from The Ancestors” opened Oct. 3 at the University’s art museum with an impressive collection of archaeological art collected over the past millennia from the Bering Strait Region. These objects served as tools to sustain the subsistence hunting lifestyle of the native people, and the exhibition aims to celebrate the artistry and ingenuity of the culture, said Bryan Just, curator of the exhibition.

“The exhibition brings an awareness of the region and its history,” said Just. “It also provided an opportunity to bring a number of Alaska natives to Princeton and involve them in a whole series of opening weekends. They had the chance to see how we’re presenting their ancestry.”

The majority of the objects are carved from walrus ivory and were originally unearthed from archaeological sites along the “Old Bering Sea,” which includes areas of the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, northwest Alaska, and St. Lawrence Island. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Just and guest curators William Fitzhugh, National Museum of Natural History, and Julie Hollowell, cultural anthropologist, arranged for loans from museums and private collections.

Harpoon socket piece carved as a predator, Walrus ivory, Princeton University Art Museum Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951. Photo: Bruce M. White

The artifacts date from roughly 100 A.D. to 1600 and most are ornately carved with intricate designs endowed with various meanings. At once beautiful and utilitarian, the tools that allowed the natives to hunt whales from kayaks also evoked the spirits and testified to the communities’ faith, said Just.

“Lacking a written tradition around the time of the material it is difficult to know with any certainty if it was considered art,” said Just. “Since there is such beautiful carving on utilitarian objects, it suggests that the division between function and form is not necessarily relevant for this material.”

Much of the engraving on each object was believed to imbue it with the power of a spirit. Oral tradition suggests that this effort improved the efficacy of, say, a harpoon. Walking through the exhibit evokes the imagination, drawing the viewer in close to the objects, many of which measure only several inches tall. Many have specific and unique additions—little hooks and swivels that seem quite practical and functional. And many are polymorphic or polyiconic, said Just, meaning that when observed from different perspectives, an object can take on many forms.

“That layering of imagery is a fascinating thing and shows these objects are tactile works of art,” he said. “They are meant to be handled.”

Punuk or Thule Comb, Walrus Ivory, Princeton University Art Museum; The Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White

Unfortunately, the museum cannot allow visitors to touch the ancient artifacts, so the curators attempted to present them in a number of different orientations.

Their success is evident in the attention and number of visitors the exhibition has received. Courses at the university are incorporating it into classes, and local school children are taking field trips to the museum. The New York Times has written about the exhibition, as have other media outlets.

The exhibit addresses the issue of repatriation, and the Web site offers a detailed explanation of U.S. legislation that provides special protections for Native American sites. For example, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the federal government in 1990, provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, Alaska native clans or villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

And while art seems to belong to the humanities, there is overlap with scientific research. Polar Field Services supports several National Science Foundation-funded studies that make the connection (see this recent post on Aaron Fox’s music repatriation effort, for example). Connections between art and science—particularly at this moment in time of globalization and climate change—can be found in increased awareness of northern cultures, said Just.

“This art incorporates a sensitivity to beauty, and a deep and profound respect of the reciprocal nature of a people’s place in an ecosystem,” he said.


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